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Ocean Vs. Freshwater Impacts On Salmon: Council Wants Report To Show Value Of Ongoing Research
Posted on Friday, July 15, 2011 (PST)

Three long-running ocean research projects that are drawing more than $4.7 million in funding during the current fiscal year were recommended for at least one more of funding with the proviso that they produce a synthesis explaining how their work is helping the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program.

 

The projects include “Ocean Survival of Salmonids,” which is being conducted by NOAA Fisheries, Oregon State University and Oregon Health Sciences University; “Canada-USA Shelf Survival Study,” which is being carried out by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and “Coastal Ocean Acoustic Salmon Tracking,” which is being conducted by British Columbia-based Kintama Research.

 

The projects are expected to draw, respectively, $2.123 million, $456,000 and $2.142 million in funding from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s program in FY 2011, which ends Sept. 31.

 

Tuesday’s Council recommendation is for up to $2.141 million in FY 2012 funding for the NOAA Fisheries project; $465,075 for Canada’s DFO project and $656,378 for the Kintama project.

 

The Kintama project’s budget has been trimmed because it includes only closed-out activities and participation in the drafting of the synthesis. Future funding (beyond 2012) for the other two will be judged based on the information included in the synthesis.

 

The Council last month approved language that outlined paths to resolution of programmatic issues unearthed during the review of projects seeking funding with the program’s research, monitoring and evaluation/artificial production categories.

 

They included “broader issues about the ocean research, including the lack of any overarching plan for the ocean research and a lack of coordination among the projects, and a lack of coordination with the projects in the estuary also attempting to estimate juvenile salmon mortality,” according to a June NPCC decision document regarding a package of RM&E/AP projects.

 

“It is also not clear how the projects collectively are addressing the ocean strategies in the 2009 Fish and Wildlife Program and thus how the information to be gained will help us distinguish the effects of ocean conditions from other effects and help us manage in freshwater for variable ocean conditions.”

 

The Council directed the project proponents to produce a synthesis that explains what has been learned, what is being investigated, what conclusions can be drawn now, and the expected time frame for the research to yield further conclusions.

 

The ocean survival study has been ongoing since 1998, and Canada-USA shelf and COAST studies have been ongoing since 2003.

 

“The synthesis report should include consideration of potential salmon management implications, and, if possible, recommendations for management based on the information collected and evaluated,” according to the June decision memo.

 

The Council said it would like to see such a report by the end of the calendar year.

 

Idaho Council member Jim Yost had questioned during the Council’s June meeting the rationale for funding projects even for an additional year without an explanation of how research might benefit the program, which was created to mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife from the federal Columbia-Snake river hydro system. But on Tuesday he said he would support the additional year’s funding because the issue is being dealt with via the required synthesis.

 

“The sponsors should know that we’re not very comfortable,” Yost said.

 

The funding recommendation and approval of the required findings or written rationale for its recommendations Tuesday wraps up the Council’s, and its Independent Scientific Review Panel’s, review of projects in the research, monitoring and evaluation/artificial propagation category.

 

Decisions on the three ocean research projects had been deferred last month when more than $30 million in funding for 40 research and monitoring projects was approved. That recommendation was for a second group of research, monitoring and evaluation/artificial propagation projects. The Council during its April monthly meeting recommended funding for a set of 100 fish and wildlife project proposals that are projected to draw an estimated $78 million in funding during fiscal year 2012.

 

The Council’s fish and wildlife program is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, which makes the final funding/contracting decisions.

 

Projects in the RM&E/artificial production category as a whole could draw up to $115 million during the 2012 fiscal year, which would be more than half of the program’s $220 million budget.

 

BPA’s director of fish and wildlife, Bill Maslen, said his agency is doing its own evaluation of the ocean projects’ worth -- to the program and to the Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion, which outlines mitigation actions intended to improve survival of salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

 

The BiOp provisions related to ocean research are relativelyi vague and in need of interpretation, Maslen said.

 

“We think they produce good work,” Maslen said of the ocean studies. But he said he liked the Council’s plan for evaluating the projects. The results of the synthesis will be employed in the BPA analysis.

 

The NOAA ocean research study aims to evaluate the role of changing ocean conditions on growth and survival of juvenile salmon from the Columbia River basin as they enter the Columbia River plume and Northwest coastal habitats.

 

“Adult returns vary dramatically (over 10 fold) as a result of changing (good or bad) ocean conditions juveniles experience. Evaluating the benefit of restoration efforts in the Columbia River to restore endangered salmon populations needs to consider ocean conditions as a contributing factor to recovery,” according to a project narrative.

 

“Over the past twelve years we have demonstrated that the distribution, abundance, and survival of juvenile Columbia River salmon in the northern California Current vary synchronously with variable ocean conditions.

 

“Because of this new understanding, we have been able to develop a suite of physical, biological and ecological indicators of ocean conditions that are useful predictors of salmon survival and which are posted to our web-site semi-annually. These efforts now provide outlooks on returns one to two years in advance for coho and spring Chinook salmon. We continue to show that efforts by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) and BPA to restore, rehabilitate, and enhance salmon production must be evaluated in terms of ocean conditions.”

 

The primary objective of the ocean research being conducted by the Canadian agency is to assess the effects of ocean conditions on the production of Columbia River basin salmon.

 

“The information generated in this study is intended to map the ocean conditions that determine the growth and survival of Pacific salmon along the west coast of North America from southern British Columbia to southeast Alaska, and to identify which stocks of Columbia River salmon forage in these areas,” according to a summary of the project. “Documenting the extent of changes in growth, along with changes in physical features of the ocean will help to improve our understanding of how climatic events in the ocean can impact important fish resources.

 

“More specifically, the samples collected in this study will provide an assessment of whether different stock groups (including ESA listed stocks) predominate in regions of poor growth and survival. This research will also provide baseline data that can be used to forecast the size of Columbia River salmon runs.”

 

The COAST project involved constructing an ocean tracking array for measuring the movements and survival of fish as small as salmon smolts along the west coast of North America and establish the relevance of such a tool for addressing important resource management issues.

 

In particular, an important goal is to develop an ability to allow the assessment of early marine survival and ocean movements for Columbia River salmon stocks. In 2006, the researchers began direct measurements of the survival of Snake River and Yakima River in-river spring chinook smolt migrants. It also compared the relative survival and performance of transported vs. in-river Snake River smolt migrants.

 

The project seeks to provide objective information as to where Columbia River chinook salmon smolts migrate to in the sea, and key information on the rates of marine mortality during the initial phase of the marine life cycle.

 

These data will be used in an explicit test of the PATH hypothesis that delayed mortality due to the hydrosystem is the cause of the problem, and secondly is intended to assess the efficacy of smolt transportation (using barges and trucks) to boost salmon returns.

 

“Successful demonstration of the application of the array to Columbia River salmon recovery issues would address a number of key RPAs which existing approaches cannot adequately address. Given the record salmon returns to the Columbia River in several years since the ocean climate changes of 1999, a critical issue for successful salmon management is to distinguish the true effects on salmon returns caused by the operation of the hydrosystem from those due to ocean climate change. The Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking array is designed to be able to separate marine from freshwater impacts on salmon, and to localize the regions of the coast where mortality is high.”

 

The projected budget for FY2012 for the Kintama project is $656, 378 for project closedown and the researchers’ participation in the production of synthesis. The budget includes estimates of cost for retrieving receivers, downloading and processing data, and writing up annual/final reports.

 

A June 30 NPCC staff memo says “that it is the perspective of the staff and Fish Committee that this project is an expensive research project that has already had six years of funding and research, was intended to be a demonstration project only but it remains in the ‘proof of concept’ stage after several years of funding, and is focused on what is now a lower priority issue of the delayed mortality effects of transportation vs. in-river migration.

 

“The ISRP also raised significant technical issues with the project, even as it gave the project a qualified approval rating, technical issues that seem unnecessary to address unless and until a priority for the work in FY 2012 is identified,” the memo says.

 

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